On their own

The street is no place for vulnerable young people, but
sometimes it’s individuals rather than social services who respond.
Take Pam, a 28-year-old mother with two children of her own.

“I brought her in one night because she was on the street in the
early hours and from there it was her choice,” she says. “She
wanted to be here all the time and she’s been here since

Pam had seen 15-year-old Janet on the streets and, concerned for
her safety, invited her in. The girl now lives with the

They did not know each other before, but Pam had seen her around
the neighbourhood. Janet’s mother had died some years before and
her father drank heavily and was violent. Janet herself had been on
antidepressants since the age of 14 but is now, says Pam, beginning
to come out of her shell.

Some teenagers with problems at home decide to leave. It may be for
a short time, or it may be for good. Some go to live with someone
else, perhaps someone they know, such as a neighbour or the family
of a friend. The people involved are usually unaware that this type
of long-term arrangement falls under the private fostering
regulations of the Children Act 1989.

Private fostering occurs when a child younger than 16 is cared for
and given accommodation by someone other than a parent or close
relative for 28 days or more. The practice was first brought to the
public’s attention in the early 1970s, primarily through the work
of Bob Holman,1 but it aroused little interest at the
time or in the years that followed.

It was brought into sharp focus with the death of Victoria Climbie.
Since her death a great deal has been written and said about
private fostering, mostly in the context of West African
communities and traditions.

Private fostering within West African communities was the first and
initially the only form of private fostering to be recognised and
is believed to be still the most prevalent. In more recent years
many other children have found themselves in situations that fit
the legal definition of private foster care. Many of these are
teenagers living with non-relatives.

In our study of private fostering we have come across a number of
such cases but have no way of knowing how common they are. Six of
the eight private foster carers Holman interviewed in his latest
book were taking care of teenagers or children who were neighbours
or friends of their own children.2 In contrast, in his
1973 book, all the carers he talked to were looking after West
African children.

Unlike other types of private foster care, looking after teenagers
involves no initial formal arrangements. The child and the carer
usually know each other by sight if not by interaction and are
brought together by the child’s difficult circumstances. The
child’s parent or parents may be abusing drink or drugs or be
violent abusive or rejecting of the child. Parental separation,
mental illness or imprisonment may also be factors.

The child, who is typically aged 13-15, reaches a point where
staying at home becomes unbearable or even dangerous, and they
either actively look for another solution or are lucky enough to be
noticed by someone who responds to their predicament constructively
and with kindness.

Like Pam, many carers are young, single mothers with one or two
children of their own. Often they have little income. They receive
no financial help from the parents, who are seldom involved, either
through lack of interest or hostility. In some cases it is the
child who avoids the contact. Most of the children are known to
social services, and quite a few have had a social worker
previously assigned to them; some have even been taken in by social
services who then arrange private fostering on their behalf.

Peter, for example, was thrown out of home and housed in a
bed-and-breakfast by social services. The 14 year old had problems
there, being by far the youngest resident, and was subject to
racism. He finally moved into the house of a friend. Social
services had asked the mother whether she would take him in and she

Like Peter, a fair proportion of privately fostered teenagers are
known to local authorities. Although this suggests they are already
considered to be children in need, they are not looked after but
left to fend for themselves.

Shortages of council foster carers, particularly for teenagers, may
be partly to blame. According to a recent survey by the Fostering
Network, an extra 8,000 foster carers (a 22 per cent increase) are
needed for existing cases alone.3

With such a shortage of carers it is likely that some children, who
may need to be taken out of their families, are not given that
opportunity, simply because there are no placements available. Some
children are lucky enough to find or be offered an alternative, and
move out, but once they do their situation changes and they fall
under the private fostering regulations.

A recent discussion paper on kinship care stated: “If the child/ren
have been taken in beforehand by family and friends (not those
identified as relatives in the Children Act), it could therefore be
viewed as a private foster arrangement.”4

Under the private fostering regulations, however, the authority has
minimal obligations to the child and none to the carer. The
responsibility of social services to privately fostered teenagers
and their carers is left wide open to interpretation and

The same discussion paper reports: “The judgement of what support
and involvement is required from social services may be different.
There could be an assessment of the child under section 17 in this

Many kind-hearted people take care of very vulnerable young people
without any support. This leaves the carer, the young person and
the placement all at risk. These private foster carers carry a
significant responsibility. We need to acknowledge them and ensure
that these private fostering placements do not break down.

Sofka Barreau is a research officer on the Department of
Health-funded private fostering project based at the Thomas Coram
Research Unit in the Institute of Education, University of London.
Also working on this project are Charlie Owen and Edwina


1 R Holman Trading in
Children: A study of private fostering
, Routledge, 1973

2 R Holman The Unknown Fostering, Russell House
Publishing, 2003

Shortages in Foster Carers, Fostering
Network, 2003,


Friends and Family

(Kinship Care), Department of Health,

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